Afghanistan, Pakistan and climate breakdown

A million and half people face forced deportation from Pakistan, and many more face drought and climate chaos in Afghanistan.

From now on, caring for each other on a planetary scale will be essential to coming together to stop climate change.

Civil wars and invasions ravaged Afghanistan from 1978 to 2021. That’s 43 years. Since the Americans left in August 2021, there has been peace. But in the two years after the withdrawal of any American aid, the economy has shrunk by a third, to under a dollar per person per day.

Afghanistan has in 2023 become the poorest country on earth, according to IMF and World Bank figures. And now Pakistan is forcibly deporting one and a half million people to that bleeding country.

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale's book Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality is available from all good bookshops. 

Afghanistan has always been a poor country. At least half is mountains or desert. Less than a tenth of the country can be farmed. That’s how it was when each of us did anthropological fieldwork there, separately, in the early 1970s, Nancy in the northwest and Jonathan in the east.


Back then, half a century ago, there was already a long drought and famine caused by climate change. Those droughts have returned again and again. In the last drought, in the winter of 2021, the United Nations had to feed more than 20 million people to prevent famine, more than half the population. And they had to do it again last winter, and they may have to do it again this winter.

There is good news. It looks like the rains will come in time for spring and autumn harvest next year. Then the country will have a few years of harvests, and then the drought will come back. Because far into the future, climate change in the region will get worse and worse and worse. But people continue, they endure, they work, they love their parents and their children, they build human lives in the poorest place on earth. With a courage that lasts for ever.

In October this year the government of Pakistan announced that the forced deportation of all foreigners without official papers would begin the following month. The overwhelming majority of these “foreigners” are Afghans. There are about 3.7 million of them in Pakistan, of whom roughly 1,700,000 do not have papers.

The United Nations says at least 347,000 have already been deported. They are rounded up, stripped of their possessions and taken to police stations and detention camps. From there, a few days or weeks later, they are loaded onto trucks or buses and dumped across the border into Afghanistan.

In theory, each family is allowed to take 50,000 rupees, which is £140. That’s not enough. In practice the police confiscate much of this money, and also often take away the registration cards which had allowed people to stay in Pakistan. As they are leaving, detainees are forced to sell their homes, if they have any, for derisory sums.


The ones who are forced across the border are poor. Rich people, of course, can buy their way out of Pakistani police stations and camps. As people cross the border the Afghan TV and media ask them about detention. They say is was dreadful. The reporter asks what was so bad. The deportee will not say. You can see shame and fear on their faces.

From now on, caring for each other on a planetary scale will be essential to coming together to stop climate change.

It is late November now. Afghanistan is a high, mountainous country, and cold in winter. At the border, many of the children sleep in the open. We keep saying “Afghans” and “refugees”. But really, the majority of these people were born in Pakistan. And almost half of them are children.

The first wave of refugees came from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union occupied that country. In that invasion, much of the countryside became a free-fire zone, and half the population was forced into the cities or across the borders into Iran and Pakistan. In the 1980s the Pakistani government welcomed the refugees, because the Pakistani and American governments both supported the Afghan resistance against the communists and the Soviets.

Most of the refugees in Pakistan were Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But just as many Pushtuns have always lived on the Pakistani side of the border.

More Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan during the civil wars of the 1990s and the American invasion of 2001. Again, other refugees went west to Iran. But by 2001 the official attitude of the Pakistani government had changed, because they were now supporting the American occupation of Afghanistan.

Why Men?


The Pakistani army, moreover, found itself increasingly trying to suppress rural Islamist insurgents among the Pushtuns who had always lived in Pakistan. This civil conflict took on the character of a government War on Terror. There were many dead in terrorist bombings. But many more rural villagers died at the hands of army and police death squads. And there was endless official demonisation of Pushtuns across Pakistan – in a word, racism.

Then came another flood of refugees as the Taliban took power two years ago. Somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people left Afghanistan for Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands more went to Iran.

It is worth emphasising that these numbers include many people who worked for the Americans, or the corrupt Afghan government supported by the Americans. And now those women who spoke out most strongly against the Taliban will be deported by Pakistan back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. And the American government has not said a word of protest in public.

Why? Because the American government wants to punish the people of Afghanistan for their defeat by the Taliban. Saving Afghan women was an important justification for the long occupation, but about the lives of actual Afghan women the American government could care less.

Now the adult Afghan refugees from the last thirty years are a minority of those facing deportation. Most 'refugees' are not refugees. They are people who have lived in Pakistan for forty years, they are the adult children of those people mostly born in Pakistan, and the children of more recent arrivals, many of them also born in Pakistan.


There are other reasons why people have no papers. For two centuries from the foundation of the Afghan state in 1746 to the creation of Pakistan in 1948, the border between British India and Afghanistan was open. People walked and moved and traded across it as they chose, in both directions.

This open border, with complete freedom of movement and residence, continued for three decades and only changed in the 1980s. That ancestral freedom made it far easier for arriving Afghan Pushtuns to settle on the other side of the border after the Soviet invasion, during the civil wars of the 1990s, or after the American war began. They needed papers for access to food rations in UN refugee camps. They did not need papers to live in Pakistan.

Then, in 2006, when the American occupation was firmly in place, the Pakistani government did distribute hundreds of thousands of proof of residence cards. These had to be renewed every few months. Then the government announced that they would not renew any cards past June 2023. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people with papers became undocumented aliens.

This is not just a policy of deportation. This is ethnic cleansing. The caretaker government of Pakistan in Islamabad says the deportations are all about security. There have been 24 terror bombings by the 'Pakistani Taliban' this year, they say, and 14 of them were done by Afghan nationals.

The Pakistani government is not threatened by the bombings, thought the loss of life is hideous. Islamabad say they will stop the deportations if the Taliban government in Kabul deprives Pakistani Taliban of any possibility of refuge in Afghanistan. To make sense of what is happening, we need to be very clear here. In spite of their names, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are not the same.


The Pakistani Taliban are much closer to the policies of Islamic State (ISIS). The Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State bomb girls’ schools, Shiah mosques and Christian churches. They have been divisive and vicious. 

By contrast, the Afghan Taliban in government are clearly trying to hold together a state that is home for both Sunni and Shiah and for all faiths. If they cannot, they know that the country will descend again into war.

They have, for the moment, succeeded in repressing the militants of Islamic State who have sought to operate in Afghanistan. But if the Afghan government were to launch a counter-insurgency campaign against people from the Pakistani Taliban hiding along the Afghan border, they would find themselves in the same position as the Americans did – breaking down doors, taking men off to be tortured, shooting their relatives and then bombing the homes and valleys of outraged neighbours. It would destroy peace in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government can’t do that. The caretaker government in Islamabad knows this. They cannot expect the threat to work. But they may have other motives. After all, this is a temporary government in Islamabad put in place by Pakistani military after they removed and arrested the elected prime minister, Imran Khan. It’s a caretaker until elections which are scheduled for February.

Imran Khan was once the darling of the Pakistani military. Now he is their enemy. He may well win those elections. And he has massive support in the Pushtun areas. So this looks rather like something we have seen many times before. A weak right-wing government launches a wave of racism against a stigmatised minority in order to split the opposition.


And where will all the people go? Afghanistan is a mostly rural country. The deportees are poor people without land. Unemployment in the cities is very high. In the early days of the deportations the government in Kabul rented dozens of fancy new buses to transport people from the border to their “home provinces”. 

There seem to be fewer buses now, and increasing numbers of adults and children stranded on the border. We do have reports that some Pushtun deportees have been moved to the north and northwest of Afghanistan and given land there, though it seems many of them have no connection to the areas where they are being sent.

And all this is happening as the amount of available land is shrinking because of climate change and drought. It’s time to look squarely at climate change. 

First, a statistic. In the last few decades 90 per cent of the already limited forests in Afghanistan have been cut down. Another statistic: one of the wonders of Afghanistan fifty years ago were the karezes, the long chains of wells and underground tunnels that connected the water from the winter snows to the parched plains. 90 per cent of these no longer work. With some it’s because of war and mines, but with more it is because impoverished people cannot hire the skilled miners to rebuild them, and because climate change has moved the water table.

And a warning: we have spoken to humanitarian workers who are visiting Afghan villages, trying to soften the impact of climate change. They report that almost everywhere villages have less water. And in most places, because the humanitarian workers can speak Farsi or Pushtu, they understand that people are now realising they will have to fight each other for the remaining water. Sooner or later. Maybe sooner.


There is another process that increases the risk of climate change. All sides in Afghan politics, and there are many sides, are in agreement about one thing. From the Afghan government to the exile groups, they want action to help people deal with climate change. Much of how to do this is already known. Repairs to irrigation systems are particularly important.

So are changes to cope with changed rainfall patterns, and simple education for villagers in these new systems. But someone has to pay for these projects. We have spoken to humanitarian workers who are constantly presenting such projects to NGOs from the international community. In every case the donors refuse to act. 

The reason is simple. The American government have forbidden any climate or development work that is carried out with the permission of the local government, i.e. the Taliban. This is revenge on the Afghan people for the American defeat. Nothing more or less. Afghanistan has scientists, engineers and universities who want to do something about climate.

No Afghan delegation was permitted to attend the UN climate talks (COP) in Egypt last year, and none are permitted at the talks in Dubai this year. As far as the American government is concerned so far, there will be no protection from climate disaster for Afghans. This is not a trivial matter. This is the poorest country in the world, and no country has been hit harder by climate change.

This is the front line. Given that, there has been remarkably little protest, or even talk, in humanitarian, environmental, NGO or climate activist circles about the importance of allowing even small amounts of funding for Afghanistan. Or even about allowing Afghan scientists and engineers to be part of the UN climate process.


You can help change this just by regularly mentioning climate change in Afghanistan in the circles you move in. And by saying that starving Afghan babies will not help Afghan women. A million and half people face forced deportation, and many more face drought and climate chaos in Afghanistan. 

But there is a larger point here as well. This matters far beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, because the world is hurtling towards a carbon hot hell, while the rulers of our world bleat and do nothing, and the world will fill with refugees.

Around the world far right racist politicians deeply hostile to immigrants and refugees have been coming to power. Their rise has pushed politicians of the centre and the left towards cruel and racist policies as well. Indeed, the cruelty and scale of the Pakistani deportations are only possible because far greater cruelties in Europe and across the world have led the way.

The persecution of all those refugees will intensify as their numbers multiply, and all over the world politicians and the media will normalize this exploding racism. This means that in a heating world, we will have to build massive movements to defend refugees from heat, from drought, famine and the wars that will follow. 

From now on, caring for each other on a planetary scale will be essential to coming together to stop climate change. The alternative will be racism, war, deportations and mutually assured destruction. The central truth of the age of climate change is that we must love one another or die.

The Authors

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale have a blog at Their new book, Why Men: A Human History of Violence and Inequality, is published by Hurst and available in all bookshops. The book ends with a chapter on the massive challenges to the human adaptation posed by climate change. This article expands that work.

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